Justia U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Breiterman was subjected to three disciplinary actions imposed by her employer, the U.S. Capitol Police. She was suspended after commenting to fellow employees that women had to “sleep with someone” to get ahead. She was later placed on administrative leave and ultimately demoted for leaking a picture of an unattended Police firearm to the press. Although Breiterman admitted to this misconduct, she sued the Police, alleging sex discrimination, retaliation in violation of the Congressional Accountability Act, 2 U.S.C. 1301, and unlawful retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment.The D.C. Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Police. The Police provided legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for suspending Breiterman, placing her on administrative leave during an investigation into the media leak, and demoting her from a supervisory position; nothing in the record would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that those reasons were a pretext for discrimination or retaliation. Supervisors are entrusted with greater authority than officers, held to a higher standard, and disciplined more severely than officers for similar violations, so Breiterman’s nonsupervisory comparators are too dissimilar to draw any inference of discriminatory treatment. Even assuming some procedural deviation occurred, the deviations were not so irregular as to indicate unlawful discrimination. View "Breiterman v. United States Capitol Police" on Justia Law

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Bellion produces and distributes vodka that is infused with NTX, a proprietary blend that Bellion contends mitigates alcohol’s damage to a person’s DNA. Bellion filed a petition with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that regulates alcoholic beverage labeling and advertising, to determine whether Bellion could lawfully make certain claims about NTX on labels and in advertisements. TTB found that the claims were scientifically unsubstantiated and misleading so that including them on vodka labels and in advertisements would violate the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, 27 U.S.C. 201, and TTB’s regulations.Bellion filed suit, alleging that TTB’s denial of the petition violated Bellion’s First Amendment rights and that the standards under which TTB rejected the proposed NTX claims are unconstitutionally vague. The district court granted TTB summary judgment. The D.C. Circuit affirmed. In making its decision, TTB did not rubber-stamp the FDA’s analysis of the scientific evidence or delegate final decision-making authority to the FDA. Bellion’s proposed claims are misleading and can be proscribed consistent with the First Amendment. Bellion received a clear response from TTB about why its proposed claims were denied. Bellion cannot bring an as-applied vagueness challenge to the regulation; its facial challenge to the regulation is without merit. View "Bellion Spirits, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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Gaskins served almost eight years of a 22-year sentence on a narcotics conspiracy charge before the D.C. Circuit reversed his conviction for insufficient evidence in 2012. At his trial, Gaskins had invoked his constitutional right not to testify. After the reversal of his conviction, he sought limited discovery and a chance to testify in support of his motion for a certificate of innocence under 28 U.S.C. 2513, a prerequisite to a claim against the government for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. The district court denied the certificate of innocence without acting on Gaskins’ motion for discovery.The D.C. Circuit vacated. A failure to prove criminal culpability beyond a reasonable doubt requires acquittal but does not necessarily establish innocence. On a motion for a certificate of innocence, the burden is on the claimant to prove his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence. The district court erred by denying Gaskins’ motion for a certificate of innocence without addressing his procedural motion. The key issue bearing on whether Gaskins is entitled to the certificate concerns his state of mind--whether he agreed to work with co-conspirators with the specific intent to distribute drugs. His actions, as established by the trial evidence, do not add up to the charged offenses unless he agreed to join the conspiracy. The court declined to reassign the case. View "United States v. Gaskins" on Justia Law

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In 2014, ATF agents executing a search warrant at Johnson’s home recovered explosive powder, items associated with the production of explosive devices, and boxes containing .37-millimeter ammunition shells with caps and primers on them. One shell had been assembled as an improvised explosive device (IED) using explosive powder, a fuse, and a primer. Agent Campbell looked through the boxes and disassembled and examined the IED. In 2017, while reviewing photos, Campbell noticed items that he had not examined, discovered that one of the shell casings “appeared to be loaded,” and concluded it had been converted into a second IED. The 2018 indictment charged: Unlawful Receipt or Possession of an Unregistered Firearm and Destructive Device; Unlawful Making of a Firearm; Possession of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (D.C. Code); Unlawful Receipt or Possession of an Unregistered Firearm and Destructive Device; Unlawful Making of a Firearm; Possession of a Weapon of Mass Destruction; and Conspiracy to Smuggle Goods. There was a federal possession, federal manufacture, and D.C. possession charge for each IED. The court permitted the defense to argue that the evidence had been mishandled by the government and that Campbell was not a credible witness. The D.C. Circuit remanded Johnson's convictions. The federal firearm possession convictions are “multiplicitous” of the federal firearm manufacturing convictions, in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause; the D.C. law convictions are multiplicitous of each other. The court also remanded a claim that Johnson received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel in rejecting a plea agreement. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In 2000, Arrington was convicted of assaulting a federal officer with a dangerous weapon and of unlawfully possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The judge calculated a mandatory 210-240-month sentencing range and sentenced Arrington to 240 months. Arrington’s sentencing range involved a higher base offense level for the unlawful possession of a firearm because he “had at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence,” U.S.S.G. 2K2.1(a)(2); he also received an enhancement as “a career offender” because he had “at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence,” U.S.S.G. 4B1.1. The judge applied the “residual clause” in the Guidelines' definition of "crime of violence." In 2003, Arrington was denied post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255.The Supreme Court rendered the Guidelines advisory while Arrington’s first petition was pending. In 2015, the Court held (Johnson) that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s “residual clause” was unconstitutionally vague. In 2016, the Supreme Court held that “Johnson announced a substantive rule that has retroactive effect in cases on collateral review.” Within a year of Johnson, Arrington sought leave to file a successive section 2255 motion challenging his sentence in light of Johnson. The district court denied his motion as untimely. The D.C. Circuit reversed. The Johnson decision recognized a person’s right not to have his sentence dictated by the unconstitutionally vague language contained in a mandatory residual clause identical to that in the Guidelines. View "United States v. Arrington" on Justia Law

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In March 2020, the District of Columbia's mayor declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Corrections responded by instituting policies intended to protect its employees and inmates from the coronavirus. On March 30, inmates at D.C. correctional facilities filed a class action, asserting claims under 28 U.S.C. 2241 and 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violations of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. The district court appointed amici to investigate conditions at D.C. correctional facilities; based on their report the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order on April 19, generally requiring Corrections to address identified problems. Although COVID cases in the facilities decreased, significant problems remained. In June 2020, the district court entered a preliminary injunction, ordering the defendants to ensure inmates receive medical attention within 24 hours after reporting medical problems, to contract for COVID-19 cleaning services, ensure quarantine isolation units are nonpunitive and provide access to confidential legal calls. Corrections took steps to comply. One month later, Corrections moved to vacate the preliminary injunction due to changed circumstances. Amici reported substantial improvement but imperfect compliance with the preliminary injunction.The district court denied the motion. The D.C. Circuit dismissed an appeal. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. 3626(a)(2), the preliminary injunction has expired; the cases are now moot. View "Banks v. Booth" on Justia Law

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Metropolitan Police officers in uniform, with body cameras, were patrolling an area known for gun- and drug-related crime. They saw three men hanging out on the sidewalk and exited their car to talk to them. One man began to walk away; Officer Goss approached him. Mabry and the third man stayed. The man who tried to leave became irate as Goss spoke with him. Officer Tariq walked over and patted the man down. Officer Volcin stayed with Mabry and the third man.Seeing the pat-down, Mabry raised his shirt and said, “I’ve got nothing,” and “you have no probable cause to search me.” Volcin asked about a satchel with a cross-body strap Mabry was carrying. The officers requested that he open the satchel. Mabry repeatedly said that he had nothing. Volcin never grabbed Mabry or the satchel, nor said that Mabry could not leave. Eventually, Mabry ran. During the ensuing chase, Mabry discarded the satchel, which Goss recovered. Mabry eventually stopped. Volcin opened the satchel and discovered a spring for a large-capacity magazine. While walking, Mabry made unsolicited statements indicating he was in possession of a firearm and drugs. Mabry had a pistol, 30 rounds of ammunition, an extended magazine, crack cocaine, and amphetamines.The D.C. Circuit reversed the denial of Mabry's motion to suppress. Mabry was “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes. The circumstances show the officers’ conduct constituted a show of authority to which Mabry submitted. View "United States v. Mabry" on Justia Law

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Long is serving a 29-year sentence at a federal medical penitentiary for violent racketeering offenses committed over the course of three decades. A double amputee, he suffers from other disabling medical conditions. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged through the federal prison system, Long sought compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), arguing that his distinct medical susceptibility to COVID-19 and the failure of prison officials to curb the disease’s rapid spread constituted “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for release. The district court denied his motion, believing itself bound by a policy statement issued by the Sentencing Commission that bars courts from releasing any incarcerated defendant unless the court first finds that he “is not a danger to the safety of any other person or to the community,” U.S.S.G. 1B1.13(2).The D.C. Circuit vacated, joining seven other circuits in holding that this policy statement is not applicable to compassionate release motions filed by defendants. The policy statement applies only to motions for compassionate release filed by the Bureau of Prisons. Because it is not clear what the district court might have done had it considered the correct factors, its reliance on an incorrect Guidelines policy establishes an effect on Long’s substantial rights. View "United States v. Long" on Justia Law

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Four years after his release from prison, and after completing three years of supervised release, plaintiff was told he would have to serve another 27 months in jail based on an erroneous release from prison because he had a consecutive misdemeanor to serve. Plaintiff filed a writ of habeas corpus and the district court ruled that he must serve the remainder of his sentence. Plaintiff appealed, but the district court failed to act on the appeal until December 2013, at which point it dismissed the petition as moot because plaintiff had been released from jail upon completion of his sentence.Plaintiff then filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action alleging that his spontaneous incarceration deprived him of due process under the Fifth Amendment. The district court dismissed the case based on claim preclusion in light of plaintiff's prior unsuccessful habeas corpus action. The DC Circuit reversed and, on remand, the district court granted summary judgment for the District.The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment that plaintiff failed to establish a pattern of constitutional violations or to demonstrate deliberate indifference. The court explained that plaintiff's evidence fails to show either that the District had a relevant custom of unconstitutional actions or that the District acted with deliberate indifference. However, the court vacated the entry of summary judgment for the District on the claim of unconstitutional policy because the nature and contours of the alleged policy present a number of disputed issues of material fact. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Hurd v. District of Columbia" on Justia Law

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A military commission was convened to try al-Tamir, apprehended in Turkey in 2006 and held at Guantanamo Bay for seven years without charges, for war crimes. Captain Waits presided over al-Tamir’s commission for two and a half years. A DOJ prosecutor was the first attorney to speak on the record. Weeks later, Waits applied to be a DOJ immigration judge. In his applications, he identified the al-Tamir commission. He received no interviews. In 2017, Waits was hired by the Department of Defense's Navy Office of the Judge Advocate General Criminal Law Division, after again mentioning his role in the commission.In 2019, the D.C. Circuit held that a military judge’s application for an immigration judge position created an appearance of bias requiring recusal, Waits disclosed his employment applications to al-Tamir and the commission. Rubin and Libretto later served on al-Tamir’s commission, Blackwood was a civilian advisor for all three judges and applied for outside employment while assisting Rubin. Libretto denied al-Tamir's motions to dismiss based on Waits’s and Blackwood’s job applications and to disqualify Libretto based on Blackwood’s continued assistance. Libretto declared that he would reconsider any of Waits’s decisions that al-Tamir identifies. The Court of Military Commission Review upheld that decision. The D.C. Circuit denied mandamus relief. The government’s offer affords al-Tamir an “adequate means” to attain the relief he seeks; Blackwood’s job search did not “clear[ly] and indisputabl[y]” disqualify the judges he served. View "In re: al-Tamir" on Justia Law